I attended the naturalization ceremony of a close friend on Wednesday – a big event, as he’d been waiting 17 years(!) to get his American citizenship. He says he came to the U.S. because it is a far better place for an “out” gay man than his home country, and that got me thinking about what it means to be an American.
I am the daughter of immigrants. My parents arrived in the U.S. in the early 1950’s, fleeing Mao’s Communist Revolution in China. My father’s family had been involved with the old government and certainly would have been killed had they stayed; my mother’s family was simply well-educated and reasonably well-off, both of which were unhealthy in the latter days of the Revolution.
So they came to America. They met and courted in New York City, got married, and I was born.
So I am a natural-born citizen; my birthright is America.
But it could easily have been different. Had they stayed in China, and somehow survived Mao’s pogroms, I would have been born in China. I would be living in a country without freedom of speech, a single political party, and a habit of detaining people who disagree with the government. I would also be living in a country largely lacking in environmental controls, and with a great deal more poverty than in the U.S. I would have far less freedom to travel abroad.
So I am grateful to live in a freer, more prosperous country.
Do I take pride in being an American? Well, yes. I do not believe we are the “shining city on the hill” that many Americans believe we are, nor do I believe that we bear the “white man’s burden” of lecturing (sometimes forcibly) to everyone else. I think this country has lost critical freedoms over the last ten years and that some of our actions could have been a great deal better. I think there are many things we could improve about our country.
But we live in a free country. I remember traveling in Thailand, where the military boards each bus that travels between different regions of Thailand, and checks IDs; I went to Laos, which still struggles under a tightly controlled Communist regime. When I visited India, the airport was covered with sandbag bunkers containing troops with automatic weapons. There are many places in the world, and in most of them I would have had far fewer freedoms (and far less prosperity) than I enjoy in the U.S.
So yes, I am proud to live in a free country.
Perhaps it might be better to say that I feel lucky to live in a free country, and we should not take that fortune for granted. My pride in America is a quiet pride; I do not feel that we are superior to the rest of the world. I feel taking pride in belonging to a “superior” group of people (whatever that group is) is both misguided and terribly dangerous, for the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best in a fantastic essay titled “The Drum Major Instinct”, which I highly recommend reading (I would love to quote it in its entirety, but it’s simply too long):
And there is, deep down within all of us, an instinct. It’s a kind of drum major instinct – a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs a whole gamut of life.
…Now the other problem is when you don’t harness the drum major instinct, this uncontrolled aspect of it, is that it leads to snobbish exclusivism. Now you know, this is the danger of social clubs, and fraternities. I’m in a fraternity; I’m in two or three. For sororities, and all of them, I’m not talking against them, I’m saying it’s the danger. The danger is that they can become forces of classism and exclusivism where somehow you get a degree of satisfaction because you are in something exclusive, and that’s fulfilling something, yuou know. And I’m in this fraternity and it’s the best fraternity in the world and everybody can’t get into this fraternity. So it ends up, you know, a very exclusive kind of thing.
…And we have perverted the drum major instinct. But let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying. What was the answer that Jesus gave these two men [James and John, who asked to sit on his right and left hand when Jesus entered his Kingdom]? It’s very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, “You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?”
But that isn’t what Jesus did. He did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see. You want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If yo’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.
…And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it…by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve…You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Where I take pride in America is in its kindness, when it is kind; in its generosity, as when hundreds of thousands send donations to those hit by catastrophy; in its willingness to protect lesser creatures, in our environmental regulations. Where I take pride in America is in its people – the people who stand up for what they feel is right (even when I disagree with them), the people who give freely, the people who believe in a better world. I do not believe we are superior to other nations – I take no pride (or try not to) in our being a superpower – but I do take pride in the things that I think are worthwhile.
But I do feel very, incredibly lucky to be an American. Because we live in a land that is undeniably free, rich, and powerful – and that makes life a lot more comfortable. I’ve visited many countries, but no others that I would want to live in. This is home, and it’s a good one. But when I visit other countries, I don’t think about them the way I would if I were a fourth-generation American. I think, “There, but for the grace of happenstance, go I.” And I feel grateful for living in a land that is free, and rich, and powerful. Because it’s a better place to live. And I feel lucky to be here, in a purely selfish sense.
But I also feel a sense of obligation, not to take these freedoms for granted. I vote because many others cannot (and in gratitude to Susan B. Anthony and all the suffragettes who labored over 75 years to give me that freedom). I support the gay rights movement, because my gay friends have yet to enjoy all the freedoms that I have. I believe it is important for us to remember that we are lucky, and to work to help others who are not so fortunate. I believe we should remember all that is great about humanity, not just America, and to use our fortune, our American prosperity, to help others.
My friend has waited 17 years to enter what, to him, is the promised land. I was fortunate enough to be born here. Now, we are both Americans. And I am grateful, and proud.